Friday, January 17, 2014

The Railway Club in the Seventies (RIP Freddie "Fingers" Lee)

Extract from unpublished manuscript "My Hometown"


The Railway Club was – and still is – just off Broad Green, around the corner from newsagents Percy Brown’s,which is some kind of generic convenience store nowadays. Kids used to go in to Percy Brown's to shoplift and cajole unsuccessfully for cigarettes. ”The Railway," as everybody knew it, was a workingmen’s club I suppose, although I didn’t think about things like that then or have any what they meant. Maybe it was originally for people who worked on the railways, Wellingborough being a significant stop on the line between Leicester and London. If it was, though, the modern line is a hell of a long way across town from the club.

On Thursdays, anyway, they had a rock and roll night at the Railway. There was a big rock and roll revival going on in the late Seventies,and Northamptonshire was one of the main players in it, having produced one of the best bands on the scene, The Jets. During the two or three years when the rock and roll revival was really buzzing The Jets were always the band who were just about to break out of the scene and really take this most niche of niche musical styles into the mainstream. Tragically it turned out to be Shakin’ Stevens instead, a Welsh Elvis imitator who sold out on the early promise of his recordings with the Sunsets and ended up being memorialized as the perpetrator of one of history’s most annoying Christmas songs.

I was part of that rock and roll scene for a while, although I nurtured a secret passion for long-haired, bearded country-and-western singers throughout my bequiffed, clean-shaven (not that I would have been able to grow a beard) “rockabilly rebel” period. Rockabilly rebels were the less traditional wing of the revival, with check shirts and bootlace ties instead of drape jackets. We had a fanatical love for Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t” and a song called ”The South’s Gonna Rise Again,” which I travelled all the way over from Little Harrowden in the back of my parents’ car to a tiny rock and roll record shop in Far Coton, Northampton, to buy. Rockabillies had a passion for anything to do with the South. The Confederate flag was as potent a symbol to us as the swastika was to the punks, and it was as morally repugnant in some of its historical implications, although none of us realized it then.

The Railway was the Mecca for everyone on the Wellingborough side of the county involved in the rock and roll scene. So when my neighbour Richard, who was a Ted, told me his dad would get me in one Thursday night by pretending I was his son, I jumped at the chance. I was fourteen or fifteen then, and I reckon I must have gone every Thursday from that first week on – give or take the odd night of sickness – for about a year.

It was amazing to a kid who’d never been anywhere without his parents except school. They had a main room with bars on either side, a stage where live bands played every week, a deejay who did sets before and after the band, and a dance floor that people spilled out onto after the first couple of beers and crowded all night doing every Fifties or rockabilly dance you could think of. And most people dressed up: the men in drapes and drainpipes with big crepe soled shoes, the women with tight tops and scarves around their necks, big wide skirts that swirled around and showed their petticoats when you spun them. The first time I was there I probably just sat and stared for ten minutes with a big stupid smile on my face. It was like stepping inside every mental fantasy you’d ever had about life in the remote, romantic Fifties.

We saw the Jets once. Not playing – they were too big to play the Railway – but walking in to watch whatever band was on that night. I remember the kids at my table cursing them almost in unison as “twats” and “wankers." But that was really just because we envied their success, their good looks, and the fact that when word went out that they’d arrived all the women in the vicinity started craning their necks trying to locate them.

The biggest star we saw actually playing at the Railway was Freddie “Fingers” Lee, who I found out only this year was another Northampton boy. Freddie had been on tv like the Jets.He was a rock and roll legend, a piano player like Jerry Lee Lewis and famous for being even crazier than “The Killer." The night we saw him he put his false eye in a glass, drank from it (whether it was water or vodka in there I don’t know) and then reinserted it into his eye socket. It was so gross we all loved it. He also set his hat on fire, deliberately, and put it on his head, a gesture I subsequently learned he’d appropriated from The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, who used to do it on Top of the Pops in a rather literal illustration of his hit “Fire." (Arthur probably nicked it from Fred, actually.)

Another act that sticks out in the mind is “Gina Queen of Rockabilly." Gina wore tight leather pants and a tight black shirt, which wasn’t a particularly rock and roll ensemble, not in the Fifties sense, but as a young man in the bulging throes of puberty I didn’t mind at all. In fact I spent most of her performance standing directly in front of her with a pint of lager, enjoying the fact that I had an excuse to stare at a woman for the first time without her objecting too much. I could see down her top, too, when she leaned forward to accentuate a particular point in a song. It was joyous.

At the end of the show I got her to sign a “Gina Queen of Rockabilly” Confederate flag bumper sticker, took it home with me like a trophy and stuck it inside my copy of John J. Goldrosen’s Buddy Holly biography. I still have that biography but “somehow, somewhere”, as the song says, Gina’s autograph has been lost over the years, like Gina’s name has been lost to musical history and Buddy Holly’s hasn’t. I don’t think too many teenagers are feverishly downloading.“Rave On” to their ipods these days, but at least everybody knows who he was. Well, Gina, here’s a partial restoration of your name, however temporarily and to however small an audience. From the skinny adolescent pervert in the front row at the Railway that night, who spent an hour and a half looking at your tits close up while you were living out your serious musical dreams, and wondering if they’d make you a star one day.

The only problem I had at the Railway, really, was girls. I was shy. I was a virgin. Emboldened by booze (an older kid – the improbably named Eugene - bought it for us, for a bit extra), I asked a girl to dance with me once and she did. But I was a terrible dancer. So the next time I asked her to dance with me she said no. I walked back across the floor to my table without her feeling like I’d just had my dog put to sleep. I was mortified, and filled with self-hate. From that night on I never asked another girl to dance at the Railway again (or anywhere else for that matter). We did meet some girls later on, and one night after I kissed one of them she asked me to go out with her; but we broke up before the next Thursday night when I didn’t know what to do with her behind the bus shelter in my village.

I just concentrated on getting as wrecked as possible at the Railway after that, and I did it so well sometimes I would fall over. There was also one occasion that hangs impressionistically in my memory when, royally drunk, I tried to walk home from Wellingborough to Harrowden. Let me tell you, Van Gogh had the swirling nighttime stars and fields just perfectly that night. I can’t remember whether I made it home on foot or Richard’s dad intercepted me before I fell into a ditch, but I know I got about a mile into the country, past Redhill Grange in a communion with a kind of wild shimmering nature that nothing has recreated since. Everything beyond that point is blank.

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